Stephane Ratel says that SRO’s heightened approach to esports during the coronavirus pandemic has been an “extraordinary opportunity” for the GT racing organization.
Speaking during an FIA eConference involving senior figures from around motorsport, Ratel gave his thoughts on SRO’s approach to sim racing under the global health crisis and how the recent interest could be harnessed upon real-world motorsport’s return.
SRO introduced two sim racing championships during the pandemic: the Europe-based E-Sport GT Series which concludes this weekend and GT Rivals for North America.
These were held on Assetto Corsa Competizione and attracted large grids tailored to professional real-world drivers, pro esports competitors and public qualifiers.
Ratel explained that these initiatives provided SRO with “very useful exposure” during a period when no real-world motorsport was taking place, and when other series were utilizing esports in similar ways.
“Because our speciality is GT racing, we have been associated with gaming for many years, because GT cars are very popular with sim racing,” said Ratel.
“We have had a number of licenses for many years and we’ve had the GT Academy, bringing virtual racers into race cars. We have a good number of well-known GT drivers that started in the virtual world.
“But my new attraction to esports really came from our latest license with Assetto Corsa Competizione and the extraordinarily realistic features of this game.
“We took the opportunity of the coronavirus situation to embark on and push forward the SRO E-Sport GT Series.
“It has been really successful, and we have enjoyed the presence of very well-known drivers from Formula 1, Formula E and others joining.
“That gave a very useful exposure for us and for our partners, and the numbers we’ve achieved have been really spectacular. [They] were very similar to the numbers that normal racing is achieving. It has been an extraordinary opportunity.”
Motorsport has been one of the main beneficiaries of the spike in virtual sports interest during the pandemic, mainly because of how faithfully its well-developed sim titles like iRacing, rFactor 2 and Assetto Corsa Competizione can recreate real-world races.
Ratel suggested that professional broadcast packages also helped with the engagement and validated esports as a worthy viewing alternative over the last three months.
“Our broadcasters were very satisfied,” he said.
“We treated it with our TV production crew that we normally have at the races, and we have achieved good viewing figures.
“Of course, we don’t achieve the numbers of Formula 1, but it was very satisfactory, and it provides a great opportunity in the future to continue to double or triple our viewership, because next to our 10 or 12 [real-world] events we can have more sim events and then grow our popularity.
“It’s very important for us, going forward.”
Potential for Increased Attention to Esports
Ratel believes that esports can continue to hold a valid place next to real-world motorsport when the latter continues later this year.
While grids like those seen in last weekend’s ACO-organized virtual 24 Hours of Le Mans – which attracted five current F1 drivers – are going to be difficult to repeat, Ratel believes that there’s scope for greater attention to esports in the future.
In addition to its own impromptu esports championships, SRO has been linked to sim racing through its promotion of the FIA Motorsport Games, which held a Digital Cup on Gran Turismo Sport as part of its six-event program last year.
“I think it’s a great change for motorsport, it’s not a threat,” said Ratel.
“Motorsport is expensive and has always been expensive. You need a team, tires, a car, and every lap you do costs you money. In sim racing, everybody can aspire to get the full kit.
“It’s still a bit expensive but nothing like real motorsport, and it can bring millions [of people] to motorsport.
“As a motorsport promoter, when you talk participants, you only address a relatively small potential audience. While when we’re talking proper sim racing, you can have millions of players.
“And when they get the equipment, it’s unlikely to get dusty in a corner: they will continue to keep playing.
“If they get the financial success to be able one day to go into real racing, I’m sure that is first thing they will want to do. It’s not a competition: it’s the best potential feeder for motorsport.”